The Universal Machine Q&A with Ian Watson


Q&A with Ian Watson, the Author of The Universal Machine

Earlier in the year I connected with Dr Ian Watson on Google+ on the Alan Turing community pages (click here to join). You only have to read his extensive list of qualifications to realise how well qualified Ian is to write The Universal Machine:

He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.After graduating from Essex University an completing M.Sc. in Intelligent Knowledge Based Systems, Ian went to live in New York for a year and then returned to the UK to study for a Ph.D. in the Deptartment of Computer Science at Liverpool University and was a Lecturer, Senior Lecture and briefly promoted to Reader in Computer Science. 

It also sounds like to book will be a dry and challenging read, doesn’t it? WRONG.

Ian Watson has a fantastic and easily accessible writing style. He has the ability to break down a complex subject into a book that will appeal to all (including those like me who struggle when things get technical). 

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. The author has kindly answered a few questions to give you more information about Alan Turing and what The Universal Machine book is all about.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

Ian Watson with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak

A: I became frustrated that most people seemed to know who invented the telephone, or the radio, or the light bulb, but most of the general public had no idea who invented the computer. Not only did they not know, but if you told them, “Alan Turing invented the computer,” most would reply “who?” So I decided to write a book about Turing and the computer.

Q: But your book isn’t just about Turing is it?

A: No it isn’t. I decided that I didn’t want to just focus on Turing – I wanted to put his contribution to the computer in its context- what came before and what followed. Also there are already many books solely dedicated to Turing and I didn’t feel I could necessarily add anything new to them. In fact that applies to everyone who features in the book: Charles Babbage, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and so on. There are many biographies just about these people or whole books just about Silicon Valley in the 1970s, or IBM in the 50s and 60s. I wanted to distil all of these into a single history so that in about 350 pages the reader would get a great overview of the history, development and future of computing. However, Turing’s universal machine is the constant theme that unites the book.

Q: Why is Alan Turing considered the father of computing?

A: Because he discovered a theory of computation upon which all our modern computational devices are based. For example, Charles Babbage the Victorian mathematician and engineer, who preceeded Turing by a century, isn’t the father of computing because he had no underlying theory upon which his marvellous mechanical engines were based. Had Babbage ever built his Analytical Engine, incredible as it would have been, it would just have been a very complex machine. What Turing showed was that underlying his Turing Machine or an electro-mechanical computer or a modern digital computer was a single theory of computation. In fact, as with many great inventions, Turing didn’t really come up with the idea alone; a mathematician called Alonzo Church came up with the same idea, and technically it’s known as the Church-Turing thesis. But, Turing, imagined a simple machine that could be built to illustrate the thesis and it’s his idea that stuck, not Church’s pure mathematical explanation.

Q: What was the highlight of writing the book for you?

A: Well, two really. Visiting Bletchley Park was fascinating; seeing Turing’s Hut 8 and the rebuilt Bombe, and the Colossus computer was for anyone with an interest in the history of computing just wonderful. The other highlight was meeting Steve Wozniak. I had the great pleasure of spending a few hours segwaying with him when he visited New Zealand and then by coincidence later the same year we met again when were both speakers at the Turing Festival in Edinburgh. Woz really is a remarkable man and come to think of it I can imagine him working at Bletchley, had he been born earlier and in the UK of course.

Q: Has there been good feedback on the book?

A: Yes, I haven’t had a single professional review less than 4/5, so I can’t really complain about that and the reviews on Amazon from readers are also good. Obviously with a subject as large as this I had to make some tough decisions as to what was included and what was skipped over – I was writing a 350 page book, not an encyclopaedia. So certainly you might find that your favourite computer scientist or machine has been omitted but in general I think readers find there’s lots of information they weren’t already familiar with.

Q: Does all the activity and publicity last year for Turing’s centenary now mean everyone knows what he did?

A: I’d like to say yes, but actually I think that though many more people now know of Turing’s genius and certainly those who already had an interest in him know much more about him – most of the public still don’t. However, assuming the movie The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, actually gets made, which is looking very likely, and assuming its good, then that should really drag Turing out into the public domain once and for all.

Q: Where can people find out more about The Universal Machine?

A: I write a blog to support the book, which can be found at: http://universal-machine.blogspot.com There is a free sample chapter (click here for free chapter) available there formatted to read on a PC, iPad or Kindle. Amazon of course has the book and you can look inside some sample content there as well.

Q: Where can people find out more about you and how to connect with you?

A: You can find me at the following places:

Universal-Machine.blogspot.co.uk

Twitter 

Facebook

Google+ (includes more links to other places you can find me online)

 

Q: How do I buy the book?

A: Click the links below to the Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk links (these are affiliate links meaning Bletchley Park Research will earn a few coins from your purchase. It doesn’t affect the price you pay for the book).

The Universal Machine: From the Dawn of Computing to Digital Consciousness by Ian Watson at Amazon.co.uk

The Universal Machine: From the Dawn of Computing to Digital Consciousness by Ian Watson at Amazon.com

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